Emerging Power or Fading Star? South Africa’s Role on the African Continent and Beyond

Event Type

Location / Date
Cape Town, 12.07.2016 until 14.07.2016


Stanford University, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Over the last two decades the international community has perceived South Africa to be the most influential country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Without a doubt the country continues to play an important economic role on the continent, remains a driving political force in the African Union and a major supporter of peace missions across the region. As such South Africa has received recognition as an important emerging power and gained access to key international platforms including the United Nations Security Council (2007-2008 and 2011-2012), the G20 and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) forum.        

However, in recent years the terrain has started to shift. While Africa is touted to be “rising”, the expectation that the continent’s most sophisticated economy would float at the very top has not been fulfilled. Instead, fast growing African economies like Ethiopia have begun to take the limelight away from South Africa, and Nigeria has taken over the country’s top spot as Africa’s biggest economy. While the commodity price downturn has put a damper on Africa’s growth prospects, the international community’s believe that South Africa can speak on behalf of the continent in global fora continues to be contested. South Africa’s aspiration to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, for example, does not enjoy the unanimous support of its own region.

The rise of other emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil on the continent has not only called into question the privileged relationships that the West has enjoyed in Africa but also put South Africa in direct competition for investments and contracts with its newly found political allies. Europe and the US, which continue to be key trading partners, are being snubbed through controversial foreign policy stances such as on the International Criminal Court from which the country threatens to withdraw. As a result, South Africa’s reputation as a vanguard for human right and a bridge builder between the North and the South is being eroded.

At the global level, investor perceptions of emerging markets are changing fast. Commodity-dependent South Africa, Brazil and Russia are seen to have taken the shine off the BRICS grouping – TICKS, which groups China and India together with the tech-centric economies of Taiwan and South Korea is now believed to be the new engine of global growth.  

These and related developments raise important questions about South Africa’s future as an emerging power on the continent and beyond which we were discussed at a conference that brought together academics, representatives from civil society and students with an interest in South African foreign policy.


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Event information


12.07.2016 until 14.07.2016


Cape Town

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Rising Powers